Dulled Senses, Empty Body

CW: Discussion of dissociation, PTSD and effects of trauma

After a long weekend during which my illness and the weather has kept me house-bound, I am finding myself feeling and acting disconnected and detached. As part of my chronic PTSD, I struggle with dissociation, which manifests in varying degrees. At its most extreme, I feel physically numb and unbound by the normal constraints of time and place, unsure of where I am, who I am and what is happening. Today isn’t like that, but is instead a more subtle form in which I feel deflated, apathetic, mentally dulled and aloof. The more I try to find myself in terms of sensing my body, the farther from it I feel.

I’ve been in and out of crisis mode after a series of severe triggers last holiday season. I know that seeking accommodations at my job is likely to lead to a confrontation of some sort, whether it is in needing to advocate further for what I need or dealing with the fallout if I get what I’ve requested. On days like today, where I know a storm is coming but the weather is perfectly calm for now, I shut off to a degree that all of my creativity, spirituality and even my connection to my physical being feels severed. Internally, I’ve gathered all the valuables and am boarding up the windows and doors, even though I feel so calm in my actions that the shift seems invisible.

As I sit with this reality, the relational disasters I’ve endured make more sense. Someone triggers me, but only the parts of me who protect me fully perceive the danger. They scatter inside me and prepare to abandon ship, but I’m still listening to the band play and enjoying my dinner, oblivious to the coming calamity. When everything lists and panic ensues, I’m somehow already at the head of the line for the lifeboats, but can’t understand how the small gesture or unkind word was the tipping point. In other words, I perceive events through multiple filters, and have already pulled the plug without knowing I was about to do so, yet am conscious of my decision to jump overboard after a more minor rattling or shaking–
“the final straw”–occurs.

It’s terrifying to feel that the leavings I take are pre-ordained and mostly out of my control. Yet, I have not regretted very many of them, irrational though they seemed at the time. It is scarier still to feel hollowed-out in the moments between the initial decision and the final withdrawal, abandoned yet waiting to run. I think I’m afraid but I can’t feel fear, because fear could quicken my footsteps too much and I wouldn’t successfully plot my course. So instead I am feeling and knowing nothing but the awareness that an signal is coming and I will need to, with immense speed and focus, react to it when it occurs. I’m living wartime again, the battle of a childhood of indifference and hatred punctuated by sheer terror and violation.

Self-care is only conceptual to me right now. I can try to rest but will drift into flashbacks. I can reach out to a friend but may endanger my relationship by being easily triggered. My main coping skills are to immerse myself in television and stories, so that other people’s stories replace my singular one into which all the threads of my life weave and to gorge myself on unhealthy foods so that the confines of body become known to me again. I intensely and spontaneously craved junk food yesterday for the first time in weeks and couldn’t understand why, but its purpose now seems clear. I shut down to conserve energy for the fight to come, even though my methods likely soften rather than harden my defenses.

I will come back to myself and will come more whole again. I’m in a temporary state of dissociation after repeated triggers that overwhelmed my healthier abilities to cope. Were I hysterically crying or having panic attacks, it would be easier to first detect and to then address my needs. It is substantially more difficult to notice the lack of a normal reaction as opposed to an exaggerated one, but they can both be equally destabilizing. Have you ever dealt with dissociation? How does it tend to affect you? What do you do to cope with apathy and detachment?

Not Backing Down

I’m back at work and the misgendering is already in full gear. I also received several lectures about how asking people to treat me the same way I treat them (by gendering me correctly) is way too much to ask. It’s invalidation after invalidation. When I’m invalidated, I’m sent the message that I don’t matter and that the other person’s comfort is more important than the recognition of my full existence. The harm is multiplied when someone then goes into why what I am asking for is such a burden and so difficult for them to manage.

In sitting with these experiences, I feel prodded to share the pain that they cause me with the people who cause them. The issue with doing this is any guilt they feel will likely lead to increased defensiveness and additional invalidation. I do think that it is worth speaking about the dysphoria misgendering causes to a wider audience, as those who are capable of empathy and compassion will be motivated to stand in solidarity with trans people and to correct others who harm us.

One of the biggest costs I am enduring is increased isolation because putting myself in environments in which I know someone will harm and no one will do anything about it is Retraumatization 101 for me. My complex PTSD/dissociation issues are creeping into my experiences as an open trans person in that I am triggered by feelings of betrayal and elements of abuse when people carry on as though I am the binary gender I was assigned at birth. These same people ignore my mental health issues on the whole as well, so the layers of invalidation are starting to stack quite high.

As I sit with this experience for a longer period of time, what I realize is that the powerful vulnerability I set as part of my mission statement for 2020 has to be targeted in its application. I do not need to open up to the people who are hurting me. I need to open up to the people who can do something about it, namely to my HR department and potential legal resources at my disposal.

I don’t have an option to run away when my employment is at stake, so I need to assemble my game plan. What disgusts me in this is the fact that trans people can be stereotyped as being litigious, when, along with other marginalized groups, I’m coming to see the reason we may be viewed that way is that our attempts at soliciting respect through interpersonal means are completely disregarded. A person can only take so much mistreatment before they have to stand up for themselves. I have little faith in the legal system, but I know any progress I might make will pave the path for anyone who comes after me.

In considering what I am dealing with in the context of the many forms of oppression and marginalization that exist in American society, the commonality that I find is a commitment to responding to the whims and proclivities of those who already have a disproportionate amount of power. In my situation, those who are cis-het are sheltered from the consequences of their exploitation of those of us who do not or can not conform to their worldview. This toxic stew is further concentrated in the power of its poison for those who face racism, xenophobia and the like.

I feel so disgusted in knowing that the people who mistreat me have vulnerable young people who trust them and look up to them, ripe for harm as their unchecked prejudices and biases play out. As this feeling of revulsion rises in me, I always come back to the same thought: I can never slip fully into us/them; I am vulnerable to the same prejudices and biases and must be vigilant in my own inner work in this area. I must do better and I must do what I can to force those whose bias harms me to do better. We can only change ourselves, but we can seek consequences for bad behavior. If you are trans and/or non-binary, where are you at on a scale from acquiescence to riot in terms of how you respond to misgendering? Where have you turned to for support? How have you taken care of yourself in these experiences?

A Bit Unbalanced (Today's Daily Presence)

Today’s card was an invitation to concentrate on my nervous system. I decided to reflect on the state of balance between my sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. In case you are unfamiliar with these terms, our sympathetic system is the system that responds to emergency situations and either compels us to fight against a threat or to flee from it. Our parasympathetic system can cause a collapse response but also dominates when we are relaxing. Both systems activate (although the parasympathetic response is stronger) when we have a freeze response to a threat. This article go into great detail about how each system works.

As I’ve shared previously, I am someone for whom threats seem to be everywhere. Given that I have PTSD, I scan every environment in which I find myself for possible dangers and stand ready to activate my sympathetic system at a moment’s notice. After being on T the last six months, I have observed an increase in the likelihood of a fight response, which is helpful in some ways as I do not feel as immobilized by anxiety as I did in the past. For example, I’ve started to engage in a confrontational way on a social media site, something I would have never done before and which feels as though it is channeling my general state of hostility. On the whole, whether it is to escape or confront, my sympathetic system turns on in many situations where it is not necessarily needed.

I also struggle at times with my parasympathetic system activating after chronic stress. This leads me to withdraw from others and detach internally through dissociation. My issues with dissociation seem to have gotten better after starting T, but I am struggling mightily with engaging socially. This article explained the Polyvagal Theory, which I’d only read about previously in passing, and has left me with the impression that connecting in a calm, happy state with others involves different body-brain pathways than dissociation or fight-flight. It also postulates that PTSD is related to swinging from active systems of reacting intensely to stimuli and passive systems of shutting off.

Dysregulation of the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems are linked with a ridiculously long list of negative health outcomes and ultimately early death. I think this knowledge only serves to increase my anger at others, both my parents whose behaviors set me down this path and the people in my current life who add to my reactivity through their inconsiderate actions. Side note: Hostility was also noted as an outcome! It feels very unpleasant to read an entire scientific journal article that lays out detail after detail to which I can perfectly relate, and to feel relatively helpless to make changes because the structure of my brain and nervous system have been so altered through my experiences.

The one positive note I found at the very bottom of the article was that mindfulness practices have been shown to have some efficacy in addressing PTSD symptoms. This has been my lived experience; the main pathway through which I’ve reduced my dissociation has been through present-moment awareness. I feel a renewed commitment to this practice after this scientifically-grounded confirmation.

The switch I seem unable to flip is that of neuroception, meaning that I unconsciously conclude nearly every place I’m in and person I’m around is unsafe. I don’t feel consciously safe either. There isn’t necessarily an internal conflict as I genuinely believe most people cannot be trusted and most physical environments hold hidden dangers. I think I will pay more attention to tracking where and when I have a sense of safety, in order to examine whether there are any consistent features of my physical or social surroundings that assist with achieving this perception.

I watched the movie “Angel Has Fallen” yesterday (spoiler alert). The last scene was a spot-on representation of PTSD. Both the son and the father experienced negative effects of fighting in wars. They wanted to work on healing together, so they went to a “Zero Gravity” treatment center where they got into sensory deprivation tanks. The scene shows each of them gently floating on their backs in their own pool of water while wearing a swimsuit. They are both starting to relax and then, unexpectedly, the lights are turned off (to increase the sensory deprivation). They both start to immediately freak out. I think that scene will stick with me for a while as it so perfectly represented the reactivity of the nervous system, even in moments of calm, for people with PTSD. If you have PTSD, what is the interaction you observe between your sympathetic and parasympathetic systems? What, if you read them, did you note in the linked articles that connects with your experience? Which environments and/or practices grant you the highest degree of a sense of safety?

Creating a Safe Place (In the Cards)

Today’s card draw focuses directly on inner work, requesting insight into how communication among parts of self can be fostered as well as reflection as to what’s been learned and what’s still unknown. What I’ve decided to spend some time describing and designing is a vision of my internal dwelling. I’m currently listening to bands like Skald which I’m sure is influencing my imagery.

When I’ve dipped my toes into Internal Family Systems (IFS) or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) theories and therapies, I’ve gotten stopped immediately because I cannot internalize an externally-derived “safe place.” I will immediately start having flashbacks when led through this type of visualization. I think it has to with the extent of my trauma history and the fact that I have Dissociative Identity Disorder but I’m not certain as to what the cause is. I’ve therefore given up on this practice until lately, where my attempts at drawing and artwork have encouraged me to consider whether I can create my own mapping of a place of security and safety.

To start, I know I need water as that is the element to which I am most fully drawn. High stone cliffs with crashing waves, separating me from possible threats feel appropriate. Atop the land, then, which isn’t an island but is connected to a place resplendent with both mountains and valleys, lies the place I make my inner home. It’s a humble country village, with the sound of sheep and the hustle-and-bustle of daily life lived close to the land carrying through the corridors. Smells of freshly-baked bread and locally-grown fruit permeate the air.

Each part of me has its own dwelling which reflects their needs and skill sets. Some parts are scientists, using the latest technology to deduce the best ways to proceed in any situation. Some are defenders, constantly scanning for threats from high towers and in dark alleys. Others are engaged in healing, helping wounded parts recover from their injuries. The littlest ones are the ones who hold the trauma; they have soft beds and delicious foods and gardens and trees to explore as they grow. There are teenagers who have also been through trauma. They are the source of my creativity and are provided with a studio and art supplies to make manifest their inner gifts. They also slip into the woods and forests that surround the village to draw inspiration from the animals and plants that live there. In addition, there are the nurturers, the kind parental figures that sit with those who have been traumatized and provide comfort and space to process their tortures.

This inner world would be incomplete without villains. I have parts of who represent those who have abused, neglected and betrayed me. Those who wish death upon all of us to stop the pain. Those who want to hurt us as we’ve been hurt, believing it will somehow undo the past. Parts who criticize without mercy as a way of keeping us safe from external critics. Those who desire revenge and who hate others with the same level of hatred which I’ve experienced.

I don’t think, underneath it all, that I am a bad or evil person, despite all these in-dwellers who would seem monstrous or dangerous. They are my inner mercenaries, policing both my internal and external relationships and administering “justice” to their satisfaction. They have mostly come to an armistice with the other villagers and instead are deployed in response and reaction to those in the external world who wish us harm. The image that keeps popping into my head is that of an immune system; they treat others as invaders who must be repelled at all costs.

My inner world does not take kindly to strangers and does not welcome visitors to the village. Almost all who we’ve tried to allow in only want to interact with the healers, the scientists and the nurturers, depriving us of the healthiest parts of self for their own benefit without meeting us in kind.

My inner world is good at exiling people; we cast them outside the farthest reaches of the village and act as though they no longer exist in our presence if they harm one of us. This may feel like the “silent treatment” to those on the receiving end, but, given the type of hatred of which we are capable, it is the safest method of defense we have. There is very little forgiveness between us and those who spoil their visit because they do not admit their behavior or attempt to make amends. Instead, they protest the whole journey to the wasteland, expecting us to act like one of us wasn’t harmed or that it was our fault that it occurred. We prefer to keep any who come to see us now only at the outskirts, trading wares without revealing much else. This doesn’t mean, unfortunately, that all parts are content to be entertained by each other only, so the dilemma is not yet resolved. This is the unknown.

I started this post attempting to discuss what a safe place might look like for me. It may seem that I’ve strayed from this goal but in fact an inner world without defenses is anything but safe from those who violate our boundaries. It is not possible to bond with everyone we meet or to form deep connections without a respect for each other’s inner experiences. Someone without access to or who is in denial of all parts of self is also unsafe as they will ignore their own “villagers” running rampant and causing havoc and will only focus on the defenses the other person is deploying in response. I own my shit and people keep using that as a way to avoid their share of the problem instead of taking advantage of that space to reflect on their own role in situations.

The imagery of my inner world that I’ve created is helpful to me in understanding why I can be very brave at times as well as extremely reticent and avoidant in others. To what extent do you have insight into the parts of self you possess that influence your thoughts, feelings and behaviors? How much communication exist among your parts? How do you hold space for parts with different agendas and views of the world?

Emotional Self-Acceptance (Today’s Daily Remembrance)

For as much of my life as I can remember, I’ve existed in states of flight, fight and freeze. I feel anger and anxiety more often than not. At times, I become so overwhelmed I go numb, losing my connection to my body and to the present. I crash from these fragile states into deep ponds of depression. Coming to terms with who I am emotionally, then, has not been easy.

One of the ways in which I’ve grown more comfortable with myself emotionally is that I’ve learned it is possible to have positive emotional experiences alongside the negative. Happy and sad emotions are processed, to an extent, in different places in the brain, so the experience of one doesn’t necessarily cancel the other out. Activities such as my Daily Writing have helped me to bring a little joy into my life amidst the sea of negativity in which I find myself floating.

In addition to having moments of feeling upbeat, I have also benefited from a fuller capacity (after much therapy) to give voice to not only the situations that cause me distress, but also to what I feel moment-by-moment when I am upset. Being with my body, even when it doesn’t feel good, has lessened my dissociation and helped me to feel slightly more confident in approaching stressors. There is a sense of “this will be over soon” that comes to me at times, rather than the timeless horror my trauma-brain foresees.

Finally, I think aging itself has enabled me to see my track record more clearly. No matter how impossible, how helpless and hopeless I feel, I muddle my way through things. I do not give up immediately when difficulties arise and I also recognize when something is intolerable and must be resisted or released. I do not trust life to be kind or easy, but I do trust myself to find a way to respond to it. What is the nature of your emotional life? What have you learned about yourself and how have you grown emotionally?

Giving Myself Permission to Pause (Today’s Simple Pleasure)

When you’ve spent most of a Monday crying, your week is probably not off to a good start. I had to deal with blatant transphobia, mis-gendering and a dismissal of my past experiences of sexual abuse, all wrapped up in a high-pressure, high-stress situation this morning, and have been dissociating–going in and out of full presence of mind–ever since. When I get like this, I have no filter and overshare, so I also managed to come out to someone as trans who I perhaps should not have. (Their reply was “trans, what’s that?” so yeah it went not so well).

Time distortion occurs with dissociative disorders, and, for me at least, is accompanied by loss of planning and organizing skills. I will start taking incoherent actions without being able to follow one step to the next, as if my short-term memory is lost. Sometimes this includes aimlessly driving or wandering in circles. I can’t stop until I’ve done what I can to feel resolved for the day.

This time, I lost over four hours before I was able to slow down enough to complete my simple pleasure. I’m writing this post and listening to music not to “calm down” but to try to be here instead of in one hundred places, scattered across time, at once. I despise with every cell in my body the fact that people and situations still have the capacity to trigger me into this state of bewilderment. As I pause, I learn the same lesson I do whenever this happens, which is to do everything in my power that I can to not add to this kind of suffering in the world but rather to reduce it. I want to humanize and connect rather than alienated and de-person others. First, I have to gather myself back to my core. How have you paused today, and what did you find when you did?

Practice Mindfulness (Today’s Simple Pleasure)

As a person with dissociation, complex PTSD and a significant trauma history, being present in my own body has proven an elusive task. Mindfulness meditation and related practices are by far the most grounding techniques I’ve encountered. I believe that the best in life is found in the present moment, if we can engage it simply as it is.*

For today’s Simple Pleasure experience, I lit a few candles and sat in front of my altar. My dog decided to accompany me, which was a good challenge in managing distractions. I started by centering myself on my breathing and then began to attend to each sense, one at a time, experiencing what I heard, smelled, felt and finally saw.

In the dim light, there were many items glittering, including a few geodes that I’ve collected. Their sparkle in the candlelight, flickering in and out, brought me back to my breath as well as to my inner body, including areas such as my circulation and digestive system. I sat with each for a few moments and scanned my body from head to toe, returning to the breath any time I felt distracted. I felt surrounded by a golden, healing warmth.

I lived the first few decades of my life with almost no access to what my body was experiencing, other than to protest its malfunctions and pain. I still feel awestruck when I take time for mindfulness and realize how many inner worlds remain unexplored. I do not want to bend each one to my will, rather, I want to sit with myself until every part of who I am that wants to gets a chance to find the warmth and presence of my inner community.

*There is a lot to unpack in this statement that I will leave to another post. Moments of trauma are the one place where I think it really falls short of applying, but, in other types of experiences, including not only connection and excitement but also the daily grind and minor frustrations, I think it holds.